Climate change is a serious threat but also an opportunity – Bob Downes, Sepa

John F. Kennedy once said, “in a crisis, be aware of the danger, but recognise the opportunity”.

Against a landscape of global economic, social and environmental uncertainty, Scottish business, public services and communities are facing the reality of concurrent crisis events.

From the pandemic and conflict in Europe, to economic adjustments; from Brexit, the cost-of-living crisis and tough choices on public spending, the backdrop is perhaps the most challenging in generations. The consequences are considerable, for businesses, public services and family finances.

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Today’s climate of crises may well be the new normal to which we must adapt. Some, instinctively, focus on the immediate crisis making today’s news, arguing that short-term priorities trump mid-term necessities.

Nowhere is this more true than the debate around our response to the climate emergency and delivery of priorities agreed by global leaders in Glasgow seven months ago. It’s perhaps the largest, most defining crisis of our time, with wide-ranging consequences and it’s happening even more quickly than we feared.

Across the globe, rising temperatures are fuelling environmental degradation, natural disasters, weather extremes, food and water insecurity, economic disruption, conflict and terrorism. The Arctic is melting, sea levels are rising, oceans are acidifying, coral reefs are dying and forests are burning.

As I write, parts of Scotland are on alert for water scarcity. Last summer, Scotland saw the second driest summer on record and increasing impacts of flooding, often at the same time.

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Icebergs calved from the nearby Twin Glaciers are seen floating off Qaqortoq, Greenland, amid rising temperatures (Picture: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)Icebergs calved from the nearby Twin Glaciers are seen floating off Qaqortoq, Greenland, amid rising temperatures (Picture: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Icebergs calved from the nearby Twin Glaciers are seen floating off Qaqortoq, Greenland, amid rising temperatures (Picture: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Our natural environment matters. Not only in isolation, but to our daily lives, from clean air and clear waters to safe, sustainable communities, employment, food and energy security.

Faced with concurrent crises, good leaders make choices. Great leaders look to not only immediate impacts, but to what’s next. Choices made today in one area will impact in other areas tomorrow. That’s as true for policy and place-makers as for profit-takers.

Today’s leaders, across Scottish business, public services and communities increasingly need to adapt to emerging challenges. At Sepa, as Scotland’s environmental watchdog, we know about challenge – and change.

Our organisation is changing to be fit for tomorrow’s challenges. We’re changing our outlook, not only ensuring every Scottish business meets their environmental obligations, but also supporting them to go further. We’re collaborating to build prosperous, resilient communities and, in the face of a serious and significant cyber-attack, we’re building back better.

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As a previous director of BT Scotland, I know the benefits to business of investing in digital services. In announcing her recent Resource Spending Review, Cabinet Secretary Kate Forbes was right to focus on the opportunity of innovation and digital transformation.

At Sepa, we’re accelerating both, with new high-volume digital services reducing simple consenting from 30 days to around five minutes. That’s just a start. We’re changing the way we work, with digital collaboration set to reduce our carbon impact as well as the cost of our fixed estate.

In every crisis comes opportunity. Today’s world needs bold leaders who think differently, who know the cost of inaction and embrace collective action in this climate of crises.

Leaders who know that decisions today, including on climate, influence tomorrow’s outlook. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “the climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win”.

Bob Downes, chair, Scottish Environment Protection Agency



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